Lessons From a Sinking

What these Florida fishermen did after their boat sank got them home alive
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The crew floated off in a life raft and watched as their boat succumbed to the sea. Within 30 minutes, it was on its way to the bottom.

The crew floated off in a life raft and watched as their boat succumbed to the sea. Within 30 minutes, it was on its way to the bottom.

Kyle Haskins remembers heading belowdecks and climbing into his berth around 11 p.m., thinking everything was fine. The 29-year-old commercial fisherman was the youngest member of a three-man crew alongside 58-year-old Capt. Terry Britton and 43-year-old mate Patrick Leoni. They were on day five of a two-week hunt for grouper, nearly 100 miles offshore from the docks where Haskins grew up in Madeira Beach, Florida. It was only their second time out on the 32-foot Thompson, which the owner had purchased used. Despite the fact that the boat had ended its first trip for the new owner with a blown transmission, everything on this second trip seemed fine.

None of them knew, until it was too late, that the boat lacked a high-water alarm and a bilge pump. “I laid down, and the next thing I know, I hear water breaking on the stern,” Haskins says. “Our captain starts yelling, ‘Get Up! Get up! Get the hell up!’”

Capt. Britton says he got lucky—he was tossing and turning that night, for whatever reason couldn’t sleep, and just happened to get up and look around while there was still time to act. The mate was asleep atop the fishbox on deck and hadn’t noticed the water pouring onto the stern.

By the time Haskins bolted abovedeck to join them, the boat was trapped in a trough, with the stern swamped in 2 to 4 feet of water. The bow was tilting up toward the ink-black sky. The captain threw open the engine hatch and saw no water in the compartment, but the steering wouldn’t respond. They realized they’d lost the rudder.

“If you can get surfing, you can get the water out, but we couldn’t turn at all,” Haskins says. “Then the laptop and everything came off the dash and went into the bilge. We realized we were swamped. It was time to go.”

From that point, according to U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Tyler Dewechter, the men “did
everything correctly,” setting an example for boaters about what to do in an emergency, not only to save every life on board, but also to help the authorities find the life raft in a big, dark sea.

Haskins says he grabbed the boat’s lifejackets and made the first mayday call while Britton was trying to find and fix whatever was broken. Britton then made three or four more calls, reading out the boat’s coordinates again and again. “The last one, I said we are abandoning ship,” the captain says. “We are going in the water.” They never heard a reply.

“We had static really bad in our VHF because of the way our lights were rigged up,” Haskins says. “You could almost hear something through the squelch, but not quite.”

They didn’t know, at the time, that their calls had gotten through to a couple of cruise ships, a freighter and, at 1:52 a.m., Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg. All the men on board knew was that their boat was going down, and fast.

Haskins reached for the six-person Viking life raft. It was up on the canopy, so he had to climb up to reach it along with the boat’s Epirb. Then he had to inflate the raft—a task he’d never practiced. “I pulled the cord, and it’s like one of those clown cars you see,” he says. “You pull it and it just keeps feeding out cord. I just kept pulling out cord. I probably pulled out 300 feet of it. I fell down and bumped my ass. I was just trying not to panic.”

The crew used flares to signal the plane but then switched to a flashlight 
because a flare can blind a rescuer who is using night vision equipment. 

The crew used flares to signal the plane but then switched to a flashlight because a flare can blind a rescuer who is using night vision equipment. 

The raft inflated on the boat’s canopy, and Haskins shoved it into the ocean. The captain tied off the cord so the three men could get aboard, and then cut the cord. They floated off, and Haskins watched as the Thompson succumbed to the sea. Within 20 to 30 minutes, the boat was on its way to the bottom.

“Ten minutes after we got in the raft, I could see things floating in the cabin,” Britton says. “And the lights stayed on as it went down. It was the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen. The stern came straight up in the air. The last thing I saw was the propeller, and then it was gone.”

On the raft, Haskins says, the crew had the Epirb, flares and a pre-packed bag with supplies including water, ready-to-eat rations, aspirin, fishing string and hooks. The first thing the men tried to do was set off the Epirb, but it wouldn’t cooperate. “The toggle switch didn’t work,” Haskins says. “My captain was smart enough to tie it to the raft and submerge it. Once it hit water, it started pinging right away.”

The water was about 75 degrees and the air around 80. Haskins was out there in basketball shorts and deck boots because there hadn’t been time for him to grab a shirt—leaving him cold after his adrenaline wore off. The men were in about 240 feet of water, Britton says, with a lot of sharks.

While Haskins was trying to stay warm, the Coast Guard was sending help. The Norwegian Pearl cruise ship was diverted to assist, and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter along with an HC-144 Ocean Sentry airplane from Coast Guard Air Station Miami were launched. By 2:28 a.m., the Coast Guard had the Epirb signal, and at 4:04 a.m., the Ocean Sentry crew could see the life raft’s strobe lights.

Inside the raft, the men heard the plane overhead. They opened the side of the raft, saw the cruise ship with spotlights and, as soon as the plane passed overhead, reached for their flares. “My captain tried to launch the first flare, but it wouldn’t go off,” Haskins says. “I launched the second one, and the plane tipped his wings to let us know he saw us. The next thing we knew, a diver was knocking on the side of the raft.”

Britton says he learned an important lesson about flares from the Coast Guard in those dark, wee hours: The flares blind rescuers trying to use night vision equipment. It was good that he’d used them so the Coast Guard could find the life raft, he says, but once the rescuers acknowledged the sighting, it was also good that he’d switched to a flashlight. “If you’re still setting off flares,” Britton says, “they won’t approach because the pilot can’t see.”

Coast Guard Lt. Tyler Dewechter was one of the Jayhawk pilots on the scene. He says the crew “did everything correctly. The men were familiar with their safety equipment and they knew where it was located, which allowed for our quick response.”

Haskins says the best advice he can offer to fellow boaters is to stay calm and make sure everyone has a job to do, so nobody’s mind will race into a panic. And think about adding a few things to your pre-packed bag for the life raft. “A book or a radio would’ve been nice, something to take your mind off of it,” he says.

As of late April, Haskins and Britton were preparing to head out on their next commercial fishing trip, once again for grouper, aboard another older boat that was being converted for commercial fishing. The first thing they did was install a 2,200-gph pump and a brand-new high-water alarm.

Britton says anyone cruising offshore should have up-to-date emergency equipment, and practice getting in and out of the life raft. “It’s one thing if you have a problem on the boat, but when the boat’s gone, that’s a different story,” he says. “I’ve been fishing since 1984, and I’ve had situations, but until now never had to bail out. Don’t think that a 50-footer can’t be underwater and gone inside of 20 minutes.” 

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.